Satellite communications

Enterprises in the Middle East are realising the benefits satellite connectivity can bring to their business, from redundancy planning, to the transmission of digital content from a single location to multiple branches. CommsMEA takes a look at how leading players in the satellite communications industry are expanding their business portfolios.

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By  Administrator Published  December 31, 2006

It was only a few years ago when the dramatic bankruptcy of global satellite operators Iridium, Globalstar and Astrolink heralded a downturn in the satellite communication industry, from which it has only recently recovered. Last year witnessed the market growth the industry enjoyed in previous years continue and the Middle Eastern region has seen increased demand for satellite communication services on the back of new technologies and the need for enterprise redundancy solutions. Inmarsat’s estimates that the global coverage of it’s BGAN satellites is now at 98% and studies by National Sky Research (NSR), an industry consultancy, estimates that by 2010 revenues from mobile satellite services will reach almost US$9 billion.

As more and more companies utilise IP based systems, from voice to data, they need something that is reliable and readily deployed. According to Paul Seaton, general manager of Newsat’s Middle East and North Africa operations, there have been two factors driving the market: the opening up of Iraq and more business level awareness of satellite communication applications in Africa and the Middle East. “People understand it now and are becoming comfortable with it. Satellite services have grown quickly throughout the region where demand is almost outstripping supply,” says Seaton.

Satellite service provider Lunasat has been working within Iraq and with the Iraqi government to provide very small aperture terminal (VSAT) solutions for government users. New developments in voice, data and video delivery through satellite systems are advancing the capabilities of operations in areas such as Iraq, where commercial satellite systems aided government communications and delivered the main bulk of bandwidth on the ground.

Lunasat gained a substantial reputation in this field, as they provided clients with specific designs for their specific use. Peter Samaha, Lunasat marketing manager, claims that Lunasat’s technical teams are available on the ground for immediate support to clients, be it from the 24/7 NOCs or from the availability of on-site support, and that this is the type of support that clients are looking for in order to facilitate negligible down times.

“We can give a turn key solution for any client. We can give installation and support, we always have stock ready and we can supply hardware and bandwidth. We work in challenging environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The client is always looking for the right support and long-term relations and this is our stance. It is usually not enough to have somebody providing you with satellite coverage, you also need someone on the ground, someone to give you support, and this is our forte,” comments Samaha.

Two years ago Inmarsat launched two new Inmarsat 4 series satellites as well as its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service. BGAN offers both voice and IP capabilities as well as up to 492kbps uplink and downlink speeds, allowing IP streaming, teleconferencing, file transfer, and video and audio broadcasts. Regional director of Inmarsat’s Middle East operations, Samer Halawi, believes that businesses are beginning to realise the benefits satellite offers over terrestrial communication technology.

Whenever an enterprise is operating in an area where it needs to perform a communication function and satellite connectivity is the only available connection, businesses are left with the simple equation: not having any communications whatsoever versus the cost of using satellite. “So in those terms, and in those conditions, satellite communication is definitely cost effective for businesses,” says Halawi.

Oil companies in the region have put VSAT technology to good use in offshore rigs. Oilrigs require adaptable and dependable bandwidth to support an array of applications for use in remote areas that are not reliably served by line-of-sight microwave and high frequency radio. VSAT products are suitable for such operations, providing high bandwidth and Internet protocol services. This permits business applications such as email, VoIP and video conferencing capabilities through constant bit rate SCPC, asymmetrical Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and symmetrical mesh TDMA VSAT architecture.

“So if a team on an oil rig that has a machine breakdown, they need to contact someone to get a flight to the oil rig and repair the oil rig, that means a lot of down time and loss of production, which could be very costly. However, with satellite technology they could conduct a five-minute video conference, which say cost them $100. That is nothing compared to the value of the lost productivity, so that is where the efficiency of using satellite comes from,” says Halawi.

Newsat is experiencing very strong demand for its teleport services according to Seaton. The Australian company owns a number of ground stations - media ports - in Eastern and Western Australia, which access satellites with coverage over the Middle East and Africa, as well as Western Europe, Australia and the US.

There are only around 100 communication satellites orbiting the planet and they use their capacity to supply service providers who act as industry middlemen.

The majority of satellite connections to Internet services entail a bi-directional link with VSAT through a geo stationary satellite, ground station and IP backbone. The use of IP has allowed satellite communication industry to make use of VoIP and further shift emphasis away from purely voice-based services. Voice has now become increasingly reliable over the Internet and that has been very much a part of consumer demand.

More and more communications companies, ranging from telecommunication providers, to government agencies to major corporations are hosting their own media communication equipment from media ports.

There is constant demand from medium sized enterprises that want an individual service, but more recently there has been a requirement for bigger dedicated communication channels. “Newsat are playing a partnership role there, so as a company we have moved up the food chain. We are a supplier to them and we provide services to them at a wholesale level, so there is very strong demand there,” Seaton says.

For enterprise users the main concern with using satellite communications is the dependability and quality of the service provided, according to Milan Sallaba, director of Mercer Management Consultant’s Dubai office. Sallaba believes the key for enterprise users comes down to the quality of the service they are given, how dependable it is, the contention rates and the bandwidth provided.

“What about fair access policies? We could have 20 people accessing the same stream and you have one or two guys sucking all of the capacity. Depending on the application that I need you could argue that the service provider could provide higher bursts for my immediate needs. For example if I am in an army base and there are more people making VoIP calls at the same time without having the system break down then that would be a distinct advantage,” says Sallaba.

Recent natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and 2004’s tsunami have encouraged a range of enterprises, from banks to hospitals, to rely on satellite connectivity for redundancy purposes, setting a demand level that almost surpassed supply. However, according to Sallaba the technology will only ever be used as an alternative to fixed line connectivity due to the intrinsic cost of launching and maintaining an orbiting satellite. “In terms of redundancy satellite is a good investment. However, I would not expect satellite communication to grow into a mass market. For instance I would always want to locate call centres in areas where I have alternative technology such as mobile or fixed line connectivity,” says Sallaba.

Satellite communications provider NSTT is looking at new and innovative ways to bring satellite technology to enterprise users. One avenue that is currently being explored is content streaming. Satellite enabled digital signage allows a business with multiple branches to stream digital content via satellite networks. Users can send multimedia advertising via a single control centre through a multicast server, nodes can then pick up on any modifications to the content within one or two minutes, allowing one way speech broadcasts. Digital signage is especially suited to satellite technology as Mohammad Abu Hmaidan, managing director of NSTT, explains.

“If you want to use fixed line Internet then you would need an internet connection in each site, and you would pay monthly for this connection. There is no need to have Internet access when you can pay on demand for the access. For example a company needs to modify an advertisment tomorrow at 12am, we can charge them only for this period and at a very low cost subscription rate compared to fixed-line providers,” says Hmaidan.

Data prices for such services, while still relatively high, are decreasing according to Halawi with the steady advancement of technology. With Inmarsat’s BGAN system the per-minute pricing of data services has gone down due the increased capability and smaller size of the satellites themselves. Before Inmarsat had its latest generation of satellites up and running it leased capacity in order to produce a higher speed transfer rate than it was capable of at the time, due to strong consumer demand.

However, with the market expansion in data services, and the increasing pragmatism of satellite broadband, demand for voice services has stagnated. “Because more people are demanding data and because in the areas that people need voice connectivity in there is already good GSM growth, due to GSM increasing in coverage. However, no matter how fast GSM expands it is always the voice service that is first offered to GSM, the other services such as 3G and WiMAX are always going to be more limited in terms of geographical availability,” says Halawi.

As well as smaller and more powerful terminals and satellites, providers are looking toward a raft of new innovations to grow the market. Mobile television, video conferencing and e-learning are features already offered by terrestrial networks, which open further sectors that satellite providers can exploit. Projects such as Emirates’ deployment of GSM services over aeroplanes, via Inmarsat’s satellites, are also growing the market as well as hybrid technologies that will be able to offer customers seamless connectivity whether they are accessing a provider’s fixed line service from inside a building, in an urban area, or a satellite service in a rural location. Hybrid systems, such as digital radio have already seen a strong uptake in the US and Europe, and with the diverse geographical make-up of the Middle East, many regional players see a great deal of potential for the technology in this part of the world.

“The client is always looking for the right support and long-term relations and this is our stance. It is usually not enough to have somebody providing you with satellite coverage, you also need someone on the ground, someone to give you support, and this is our forte”


“I would not expect satellite communication to grow into a mass market. For instance I would always want to locate call centres in areas where I have alternative technology such as mobile or fixed line connectivity”


“For example a company needs to modify an advertisment tomorrow at 12am, we can charge them only for this period and at a very low cost subscription rate compared to fixed-line providers”

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